What drives headlines

I’ve just caught up (thanks to the AHA blog) with the dispute over a New York Times story about the Watergate tapes. The Times’ ombudsman, Clark Hoyt, wrote this article criticizing his colleagues, especially weekend editor Alison Mitchell’s decision to give front-page play to the Feb. 1 story. The suggestion came from the paper’s culture desk, but it was Mitchell who decided to run with it. Placing the story on Page 1 falsely implied that it contained news-making — no, history-making — revelations about Watergate.

What even Hoyt declined to say plainly is that the Page 1 placement of the story strongly suggests an attempted tie-in to the movie Frost/Nixon. Hoyt briefly mentions the film in his first sentence, then moves on, as if the headline’s coincidence with the movie were just that: a coincidence.

I can understand the impulse to use the film to give a fillip to the ailing Gray Lady as revenues keep sinking and media keep changing. But this was a serious error in editorial judgment — one that failed to consider the power of Page 1 to imply notability in any story that appears there. Marketing logic seems to have carried the day. I also detect a whiff of desperation, as the days when the country had a “newspaper of record” seem to be coming to an inevitable end.

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